I’m afraid of homeless men – but that doesn’t make me a bad person

Being followed home and harassed make sympathy complicated.

Homelessness Students the tab University of Cambridge women

A recent article by The Tab presented us with some startling facts about Cambridge homelessness.

There are 152 registered rough sleepers in Cambridge, a statistic I’m sure won’t be surprising to anyone who’s lived here. When people come to visit, I feel the need to explain why, between college and Market Square, we have walked past twenty people huddled in sleeping bags. Affluence. Tourism. Jimmy’s.

What we don’t always talk about is how this makes us feel. Angry, yes. How the fuck people still end up on the street in a country as brazenly wealthy as ours is beyond me. And I say ‘still’, but I know that this government isn’t doing much to help, anymore than it’s helping students, or the mentally ill, or refugees. If anything, things are getting worse. So yes, I do feel angry. But I also feel afraid.

Eli - a big issue seller in Cambridge

Eli – a big issue seller in Cambridge

I buy a Big Issue now and again. When I do have change, I try to give, though I know the general rule is that food is good and good food is better. The thing is, when I’m walking home at night and someone approaches me, my first reaction isn’t to run to Sainsbury’s and pick up something for them. It’s to be scared. Very, very scared. I keep my head down and try to walk away, quickly. And I think that this is a taboo that people, and very often women, have failed to examine.

Conversations that I’ve had with my female friends about homelessness tend to be in two very different veins. On the one hand, we’re able to have a reasoned discussion about it. The government needs to do more, we say. Mental health provision, something I care about very deeply, needs to be improved. Knowing that it can be tricky for someone with all the privileges I have to take care of their mental health, I cannot begin to fathom the experience of someone with no home to go to. And mental illness is not just a strain on the diagnosed party, but on those around him.

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It’s closed at night anyway

I’m using ‘him’ on purpose, because the vast majority of those people who will become homeless are male. A Telegraph article last year quoted a statistic of 71% of those surveyed being men. I wish I could be more precise, but I think we know when we walk the streets of Cambridge that the proportion is larger than that. It is a gendered issue, as mental health care is. I don’t want to pretend that this doesn’t also have something to do with how young women learn to feel about adult men.

The other vein of conversation is the reality of interacting with the homeless. A lot of women I speak to have stories of being harassed and verbally abused by men on the street. They’re in a desperate situation. We can’t critique them for calling us pet names and not taking no for an answer in the same way as we can critique some posh twat in Cindies. But often it goes beyond that. Screaming abuse. Following us. Taking advantage of the fact we’re a woman walking home alone. Vulnerability preying on vulnerability.

Both Christ's and Parker's

So many lights…

Behind the liberal veneer, a lot of women admit that being altruistic feels like they’re putting themselves in danger. So we donate to homeless charities, we try to absolve ourselves with occasional giving, but when we get down to it, we don’t know what to do when confronted with the reality. I know I’m wrong to be afraid, I know that homelessness makes people more vulnerable to violent crime, not more likely to commit it.

But we need to talk about the reality of interacting with the homeless in Cambridge, and how to resolve the combination of guilt and fear that informs our actions. It would be nice if being a five-foot tall woman didn’t make me feel more scared alone at night, but it does. Recent safety alerts in Cambridge haven’t helped.

Big Issue

Big Issue

A wise friend of mine, who’s done some work with the homeless, pointed out that this goes far further than me being afraid to walk down some streets at night. We expect those in need, from the homeless on our streets to the refugees seeking passage to our country, to always be good people. It’s the rhetoric of the Daily Mail – the ‘deserving’ refugees and the undeserving. We make moral judgements on people in terrible circumstances as if they were just like you and me, but they’re not.

Just because someone looks dirty or shouts abuse doesn’t mean they don’t need support. But, sometimes, and certainly in this case, it is better to do it in other ways that don’t put you in a vulnerable position. Donate food, hygiene products, clothes, warm things. Donate money to charities like Shelter.

And don’t feel ashamed. Fear and guilt get us nowhere.